Finding Myself in Nella Larsen

Rebecca Hall's directorial and screenwriting debut Passing is playing at the Paris theater through November 4. The film has been nominated for five Gotham awards, including Breakthrough Director and Best Screenplay for Rebecca Hall.


The elucidation of a family’s history, like the history of a nation, is never straightforward or simple. History after all is a site of struggle and even a mode of obfuscation-memories are revised, edited, doled out in fragments. The truth is stated baldly and then denied, hedged, or partially retracted. The same stories somehow become less and less clear with each repetition. Clarity is elusive, and perhaps its pursuit is even unkind-why probe something so delicate as the past? And when it comes to questions of race, what answers could ever be satisfying?

From the moment that this script I’d written in a kind of fever dream started to become something that might turn into an actual film, the first question was always: Why me? Why this story? I have been circling around the answer to that question for nearly 15 years. The shock of recognition that I felt upon reading Nella Larsen’s novella was deeply confusing to me, enough so that I sat down and wrote my adaptation almost immediately after finishing it, as a way of trying to find out why its hooks were in me so deeply. That encounter with Passing not only produced this film, it also set me off on a journey through my family’s collective memory, its history, and the long story of black people in America.

When I first read Passing I knew, in some distant way, that my grandfather had probably passed. But that seemed like the ending of a story, rather than the beginning of one. In retrospect, I think I accepted that any African-American lineage in my family ended with him, that beyond his strategic performance lay only the mask he had chosen to wear. But as I considered my mother’s life, growing up in an atmosphere of secrecy in which her father’s darker skinned siblings could only visit after sundown, thinking of her witnessing the racist humiliation of her father and her family upon discovery of his “true” identity, and of her losing her father to a heart attack while he was still relatively young, it became clear to me that his decision, for which I have nothing but empathy, or more precisely which I refuse to judge in any way whatsoever, had resonances that went beyond his own life. Many family dynamics I had always seen as more or less strictly psychological in origin, I began to think of as much more socially and economically determined.

I was also drawn to this story on cinematic terms. I grew up on American movies: Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford. I fell in love with those films, and because of them I fell in love with film. When I read Passing it was almost like discovering a lost script of that era, a psychological noir with two women at its center, each practically purpose-built to engineer the destruction of the other. Clare and Irene are two sides of a coin, two women presented with similar options who have made opposite life choices. They are both attracted and repelled by their differences and this produces a sort of chemistry between them that is the main source of tension in the film.

In the novella, Larsen brilliantly uses racial passing as a metaphor for the way that anyone's inner reality might not match up to the way they try to be seen. There is an internal tension in each character between who they are supposed to be and what they actually desire that can give an utterly banal tea party an atmosphere of thrilling subterfuge. In filming Passing, and specifically its main character Irene, I tried to place the film squarely in that space of tension by oscillating between subjectivity and something closer to objectivity. There are times in the movie when you are inside her highly competent performance of her various roles, and other times when you are outside her perspective, seeing someone in severe denial of her own conflicted desires. Whether it's refusing to discuss the race problem in front of her children or denying the depth of the challenge Clare poses-how seductive Clare is, how enthralled she is by her, how possibly even attracted she is to her-Irene cannot admit how much Clare means to her. Truthfully, neither can I. Clare’s willingness to give herself fully to her desire is terrifying, but also alluring. The freedom she gives herself to be what she wants to be is for me, deeply, even mythically American. This is the country in which, the cliche goes, you can grow up to be anything you want, as long as you work hard enough. What future would Horatio Alger have scripted for a young black woman in 1928, or as my grandfather was, a young black man born in 1894?

What is the emotional legacy of a life lived in hiding? It is a question I hope anyone who watches this film will consider. One of the obvious consequences of my grandfather’s choice is that my mother also passed, though unlike her father, she did so without much volition. Instead of inheriting his history (which as it happens, is a truly extraordinary story of African American genius and resilience that goes back to the American Revolution), she inherited his denial of that history, and she honored her father as any child would. She also passed that denial on to me.

Unlike my mother, I present as unambiguously white. Only after making this film did I discover, (thanks to Henry Louis Gates, who so generously contributed to this book) that on my mother’s side, my skin color comes from her Dutch mother, and the plantation owner who raped my great grandmother, who was legally his property. In an irony that must be endemic in American history, I have been to no small degree cut off from the history of my mother’s family by the very violent regime of white supremacy that I now benefit from as a white presenting person.

So why me? Why this film? In blunt terms, what am I? To quote Brian in the novella, if I knew that, I’d know what race is. To the best of my knowledge, race is a fiction created by structures of exploitation that required it, and perpetuated by a system that still does. But that is an abstract answer to a very personal question. Maybe the truest answer is that I am, in some permanent way, passing. Maybe I always will be. I cannot choose how I present, but I can choose to honor my family’s history, and I hope that with this film, I have begun to do so.